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How Britain Ends

I highlighted last week that I enjoyed the journalist Gavin Esler’s book ‘How Britain Ends’, albeit with a caveat or two about its repetitiveness in places and how quickly books of political commentary go out of date.  Our attention is unsurprisingly focused on the Middle East just now, as it was until recently on Ukraine, but it will probably only be a matter of time until the run-up to the general election brings our minds back to what is going on here, not least the challenges of what it means to be British in today’s world – if, indeed, such a thing is actually possible.

Esler highlights an article from the National Geographic magazine in 2018, in which Afua Hirsch wrote: ‘Britishness, as an identity, is in crisis.  It is still linked in the imaginations of people of all races to the concept of whiteness.  A 2017 poll found that more than half of the British population felt the presence of people from ethnic minorities threatened their culture.  Not surprisingly, there is widespread distrust in the language of integration.  It is the only answer political leaders currently have to offer and represents the unspoken hope that eventually these visible ‘others’ will have their otherness neutralised by British culture.  They will eventually disappear, leaving nothing more than a trace of curly hair, a splash of extra freckles, a liberal, harmless version of a foreign faith, or the memory of a funny-sounding name, their culture blending seamlessly into the mainstream British experience.’

Much of our individual and collective psyche involves what the author calls declinism and nostalgic pessimism, which have been around for quite some time, to the point of being two of our oldest traditions.  For example, he cites the ‘Sceptred Isle’ speech by John of Gaunt in Shakespeare’s Richard II, which, while beautifully patriotic on the one hand, is actually a complaint on the other about how much better things used to be – a sense that the country had a great past and has now gone to the dogs.

As so often, context here is important, and Esler questions who this John of Gaunt, this quintessential Englishman whose patriotic voice has resonated for centuries actually was.  His answer is that he was Jean de Ghent – ‘Belgian Johnny’ – a chap who fetched up from the great mediaeval city in east Flanders.  He was no Englishman, but a migrant who historically, if not dramatically, would have spoken in French, not the English of Shakespeare and the King James Bible.  He introduced to the English a poll tax, which every adult person over the age of fourteen was supposed to pay.  As a result, rather than being a symbol of English glory, he and his tax were loathed by many, and attempts to collect the hated tax became one of the contributory factors to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

In a more up-to-date context, and therefore much more worrying than historical accuracy from the fourteenth century, is how this declinism and nostalgic pessimism too often manifest themselves today as tribalism and racism.  This often happens on the fringes of English nationalism, with a growing sense of grievance that has raised the profile of a racist and sometimes violent minority who blame immigrants for what they see as the decline of their traditional communities.

Esler is relentlessly scathing throughout his book about the lack of quality among our political leaders and he highlights Chris Grayling as the epitome of the poor standard of government ministers in recent years.  Grayling was Secretary of State for justice from 2012 until 2015 and Secretary of State for Transport from 2016 to 2019, banning prisoners from receiving books until the measure was declared illegal, overseeing the abysmal failure of the privatisation of the probation service, signing contracts with ferry companies that did not own any ferries, blocking up the road network while trying to work out what might happen after Brexit, and paying lorry drivers £500 a day to sit on an airfield in Kent to simulate a traffic jam.  Apparently, the Labour Party estimated his incompetence cost the British taxpayer in the region of £3 billion, which was nothing compared to what Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng managed to do, of course, but which still constitutes a pitiful and expensive career.

Not surprisingly perhaps, Esler argues that the problem is systemic, pointing out that many talented politicians of an independent cast of mind, or people outside politics who wish they could help steer the United Kingdom in a better direction, are sidelined by a system that favours time-servers, hacks and bores who can secure advancement by sucking up to the leader and endorsing an ideologically sound, even if practically idiotic, position.  Grayling, he says, is not a bad man, but he was a very poor minister, and his career sums the problem up nicely.

He is even more scathing about Boris Johnson, who he says was not a ‘One Nation’ Conservative but a ‘One Notion’ Conservative, and his one notion has always been to do whatever is best for Boris Johnson.  But Johnson represented nostalgic optimism in an English culture steeped in nostalgic pessimism.  He cheered people up because he sounds like the England of seventy years ago which was – inevitably yet inaccurately – better than the England of today.  In ‘Watching the English’, we are told, Kate Fox suggests an apt phrase to sum up Johnson’s political success – ‘the importance of not being earnest’.  She argues that English people adore eccentrics and gifted amateurs and take against those who try too hard, the kind of people Mr Johnson dismisses as ‘girly swots’.  

The English, in this reading of national character, have to wear their learning lightly and with humour, although Mr Johnson's humour is that of a seedy, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, double entendre-addicted Englishman of the kind parodied so well by Monty Python.  This is tempered with the ability to quote a dead language, Latin, and a shambolic appearance – though it is worth noting that this shambolic appearance is carefully crafted.  The political performance art known as ‘Boris Johnson’ somehow works in an England which not only tolerates muddling through but has elevated it as a means of travel into a final destination – as we are learning day by day from the Covid enquiry.

I found it hard to disagree with Esler’s conclusion that we need to recognise – and that means to cease ignoring – the problems facing the UK today.  This requires coming to terms with the profound complacency of those in leadership positions in Britain.  In particular, we need to recognise that the idea of English exceptionalism is dead.  Across the world, no one mistakes England for the New Jerusalem or this other Eden, and no one outside England talks of English institutions as the envy of the world.  No one except the English cares who won the World Cup in 1966 or, indeed, about victories at Crécy and Agincourt.  The world does not look to Westminster as a model of governance, nor to the NHS for a way to organise healthcare.  

The point is well made that we should instead do more to recognise the many good things about our strong identification with our towns, our cities and our counties.  We have hugely inventive people, caring communities, extraordinary schools and universities, strong pride in our shared history and a creative, inventive and generally tolerant culture.  As he highlights, in time of crisis we tend not to turn to violence for solutions.  When coronavirus first struck, for example, British people rushed to stockpile toilet rolls while Americans stockpiled guns and ammunition.

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